Debussy, Claude (1862 – 1918)

‘I haven’t the least intention of disconcerting my contemporaries with insomnious harmonies.’

A fine three-page autograph letter signed by Claude Debussy (‘Cl. Debussy’). Written on October 5th 1890 (according to postal stamp on accompanying envelope) in fountain pen ink on a single folded sheet of paper, and addressed to his friend, the composer Raymond Bonheur (1861 – 1939).

Debussy opens with a flourish: ‘I’ve wanted to write to you for days and days; some annoyances of revolting banality have prevented me from doing so. I don’t dare tell you that the rare and fine incense launched by you over the melodies rises deliciously to my nostrils, for then I would immediately have to behave like an exalted idol and be obliged to accomplish miracles and assume a posture that is pretty tiring in an age of upheaval.’

He goes on, ‘Besides, I haven’t the least intention of disconcerting my contemporaries with insomnious harmonies. I simply want the assent of people like yourself, who are disinterested in easy programmes and are truly willing to believe in music devoid of impure mixtures. Why look first at the label, and put oneself on the level of things that are sold in the bazaars? Let us make music that contains our whole lives and not merely small corners of it fit only for those who gape and engage in small talk and who  never create it [he adds an asterisk, adding a comment below, ‘*And indeed for those who do create it!’] and that way we will not get in the way of literature or philosophy. With that, I shall expect you one of these days, and am yours very cordially and amicably, Cl. Debussy’.

In very fine condition, and together with the original hand-addressed envelope.

An interesting and early letter from the composer on the cusp of a new style (a style later known as ‘impressionism’), written as it is during a period of flux and inspiration. An ardent follower of  Wagner in the 1890s, Debussy had recently concluded that to imitate his style would not be the way forward; he famously described the German composer as ‘a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn’. In 1889, he had first heard Gamelan music at the Paris Exposition, and his friendship with Satie began in 1890; in Satie, he found a kindred spirit.

Debussy’s subsequent output in the 1890s included celebrated works such as Pelleas et Mellisande, his String Quartet, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and many important piano works; of particular note is his piano piece Rêverie, written in 1890, which employs impressionistic techniques accompanied by late romantic harmony, creating a dreamlike and ambiguous musical landscape — a style he would carry forward into some of his most important works of the period.